Slavery has been around since the dawn of history, but it only reached industrial scale when Europeans forcibly brought 12.5 million Africans to America. The development of the continent would have been impossible without the exploitation of the survivors. Escravidão (Slavery), by the writer and journalist Laurentino Gomes (Maringá, 63 years old), is one of the books of the moment in Brazil, a fascinating report on a historical episode whose legacy is present in inequality in the last American country that abolished slavery . The author maintains, in an interview in São Paulo on the occasion of the Black Awareness Day (November 20), that the countries involved should apologize.
Question. Did you learn more with your trilogy about the founding of Brazil or now with slavery?
Reply. The previous one helped me understand how the construction of the Brazilian State was in the 19th century after breaking ties with Portugal. But if you want to understand Brazil in a deeper dimension, you must study slavery, the most important topic in our history. Everything we were, are and what we would like to be has to do with slavery. With almost five million African captives, it was the largest slave territory in America and the last to put an end to trafficking, in 1850, and slavery, in 1888. The country was built by slaves in all economic sectors, sugar, gold , diamonds, coffee. The abolitionists of the 19th century argued that Brazil needed to make two abolitions: stop trading with people and incorporate former slaves into society as citizens, giving them land, employment and education. Brazil has never done this.
R. Brazil became an international pariah like South Africa during the apartheid. The Golden Law (which outlaws slavery) seeks to rid him of this stain, but never made any effort to incorporate Afro-descendants because it meant the renunciation of privileges and wealth. That is why we are one of the most segregated countries in the world, even if we did not have racial segregation laws like those of the US If you measure Brazil with any criteria, income, employment, public safety, there is a gulf between the opportunities for the white population and the black one. Although we developed the myth that we were a great racial democracy, the manifestations of racism are explicit in social networks and in the speech of the President of the Republic.
P. What is the practical translation of the second abolition in Brazil?
R. If the wealth of nations is no longer natural resources but human capital, Brazil will never be a decent country as long as the vast majority of the (black) population lacks decent education, health and jobs. Facing social inequality in Brazil is synonymous with a second abolition, because the majority of the poor are black. That is why I say that it is not just a historical repair, but an investment in the future. This is the main political agenda going forward, even if we have a hostile government. This is a subject trapped in the 19th century. Any government, political party or electoral campaign will face this legacy.
P. What is the biggest difference between slavery in America and captivity in the world?
R. It existed in ancient Egypt, Babylon, ancient Greece, and in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. The first novelty is the industrial scale, with 12.5 million people embarking on some 35,000 trips to the New World. The second, the birth of racism: it is the first time in history that slavery has been associated with black skin. There is an entire ideology to say that Africans were savages and that the best that could happen to them was to be enslaved to incorporate them into the supposed European civilization installed in the tropics.
P. The Catholic Church distinguished between Indians and Africans.
R. There was a philosophical and theological discussion about whether or not to enslave the Indians, but the reality is that they were massacred. The Portuguese and Spanish were unable to carry out their initial project of enslaving the Indians. If they had been successful, we might not have had African slavery.
P. He tells in his book that some great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries defended freedom and slavery.
R. Yes, David Hume (British philosopher and writer) was a shareholder in a slave trading company. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the US Declaration of Independence and argued that every human being was born with the same rights, owned a large batch of slaves.
P. Should countries ask for forgiveness? You say that former President Lula da Silva did it, but Portuguese Marcelo Rebelo de Souza did not.
A. I think so. It is a question of honesty, something symbolic, because it was a massacre. Now, I doubt if it would be possible to pay this debt. In Africa there is now an elite heir to those allied with Europeans who benefited from trafficking. King Ashanti in Ghana supplied captives to the English and the Dutch. Who compensates whom? It’s hard. But a political attitude of asking for forgiveness is important. Pope John Paul II did it in Senegal, not for the whole Church, but for the Catholics involved. He also supported practical measures, such as school and administration fees, for people of African descent. There is a historical debt that must be addressed with concrete words and gestures.
P. He says that there was a time when for every 100 inhabitants of Brazil, 86 were slaves. Why didn’t they rebel?
R. There were manuals that advised farmers not to maintain groups of the same origin, culture, language or region. This prevented them from organizing. And there was a system of reward and punishment. The rebel was flogged; the cooperative earned weekly time off, the right to garden, go to Mass, and earn their own manumission (your freedom). The main form of resistance was to try to occupy the spaces that society gave the slave to get closer to the universe of the whites, such as religious brotherhoods. There was a cultural whitening: the faster it got away from African culture, the more advantageous it would be.
P. Have you consulted testimonies of slaves?
R. Little bit. Unfortunately the story of slavery is told by whites. There are some relatively rare testimonials and biographies. Another precious source for listening to slaves is the questions of the police when they were charged with crimes. All that is known about Palmares, the main quilombo (settlement created by escaped slaves in Brazil) are military expeditions.